By Douglas Albrecht, Ph.D.
In the last Babies to Big Kids blog from my colleague Lorenzo Azzi (“Managing meltdowns”), a parent commented specifically about dealing with biting. Many of Dr. Azzi’s suggestions apply to biting issues, and I wanted to offer up some additional help and support for parents of toddlers who may be going through the biting phase.
First, let me assure you that biting is a very common behavior in children. But, no one wants their child to be known as “the biter” and I’m sure that does not make it any less frustrating or concerning to you as a parent.
From my perspective as a clinical psychologist, when I talk to parents about any kind of challenging behavior their child is exhibiting — whether that is biting, hitting or tantruming — I think it is important to ask, “What is this behavior really about?” and “Why is my child biting?” in order to support and teach them more effectively.
Why Does My Toddler Bite?
There are usually two basic issues related to your child biting:
1) He or she is dealing with something emotional and overwhelming or
2) There is a physiological need they are filling by biting.
Let’s take a closer look at each reason.
Toddlers tend to bite because their emerging language skills are less effective, and they have difficulty communicating their need, wish or desire to others. They may also be feeling tired and end of their rope.
At this age, most children also have difficulty sharing. This is a BIG one because your child’s concept of sharing at this age is, “If I had it, it’s mine, and if I had it before and you are playing with it now, it is still mine.”
Taking a look at the physiological reasons for biting, your child may be teething or just may need what we call “oral stimulation.” Some children need more of this input than others and may like to chew on crunchy veggies, or really like having their teeth brushed as well — this is very normal behavior.
What Can I Do To Stop the Biting?
Children, especially toddlers, need three important things every day: 1) good sleep 2) a healthy diet and 3) the opportunity to get out energy in an appropriate way. Ensuring your child has these needs met will go a long way in fostering positive behaviors and limiting frustrations.
When a biting incident does occur, remain calm, be patient and don’t overact. Remove the child who did the biting and get her away from the cause of the reaction. Say to her a few simple words that she will understand, such as “We don’t bite” or “Biting hurts.”
You and your child should also spend some time with the person who was bitten, making sure they are okay. This will help create a sense of empathy in your child and an awareness of others.
After the incident has passed and she is calm, it is time to help teach her to use simple words to express her emotional experience. Say, “It can be hard to share toys with your friends,” or “I know you are tired,” to help her put language to the emotional experience.
Biting behavior won’t change overnight; but if you have a good game plan ahead of time, respond calmly and help your child learn to voice her frustrations through language, instead of biting, you will see this behavior diminish.
Douglas Albrecht, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and the clinical director for the Good Fit Counseling Center at Southwest Human Development, where he provides treatment, assessment, consultation and supervision services for infants, toddlers and their families. His expertise encompasses infant/toddler mental health, parent-child relationships, play therapy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attachment and bonding.